As I pulled into a middle school to referee a soccer game between two local club teams, I saw an advertisement for the local recreation league that will sponsor teams in the fall. For a second, I thought of the gradual migration of new signups to the recreational league to the select few making the competitive club team, and the progression made sense. The better players moved to more competitive, year-round soccer, and the lesser players played a fall season of recreational soccer. Then I remember that I was refereeing 10-year-olds, and I questioned whether or not it was fair to make these determinations of talent at such a young age.
Is this progression better than the free-for-all of youth basketball? I don’t know. In youth basketball, this progression happens, but it is less organized. Anyone can start an AAU team. Eventually, the better players get recruited to the better, shoe-sponsored teams. That starts early, but the recruiting never really ends.
There are certainly negatives to the uncontrolled, unregulated basketball system. However, a child not selected for the shoe-sponsored club teams remains in the same competitive stream as the child who is selected. He or she has a chance. In some cases, not being selected may be an advantage because being the best player on a lesser team may be better than being the 10th man on the all-star team who rarely ever plays. The shoe-sponsored team does not necessarily provide better coaching and instruction because the coaches are selected by their connections or entrepreneurial drive mores than their skill development and coaching acumen. The lesser team may or may not have a better coach. You never know.
In soccer, the experiences definitely differentiate once the selection is made because of the organization. Players have player passes and are locked into one team for the year. Many of the competitive clubs have paid coaches, whether on a team by team basis or at least as a coach director who helps and oversees the other coaches. The teams play against better competition because they only play other competitive clubs with similar set ups in terms of practice structure, coaching, etc., and the recreational teams play only against similar recreational teams, often with parent coaches, similar practice structure, and more. Therefore, once a player is selected for a competitive team, he or she enters a different competitive stream with better opportunities: better teammates, better coaching, more games, more practice, better instruction, better facilities, better equipment, better competition, and more. These differences accumulate and multiply. It is difficult for a previously non-selected player to improve sufficiently with fewer games, less coaching, and less practice to overtake the already selected players. Even when I was in high school years ago, the only player who made my high-school soccer team’s JV team without previous club experience was a backup goalie.
The soccer experience is organized, and in some ways, is similar to what I imagine many people would advocate for in basketball. Rather than playing in tournaments every weekend, these clubs play in a league with one game per weekend. They have the State Cup which is their big tournament, and then there are occasional tournaments, such as Memorial Day tournaments or college showcase tournaments for older players. During tournaments, because of the multiple game per day, the games are reduced in length by 10 minutes, and often the substitution rules are relaxed to afford more opportunities to substitute and play more players (State Cup is the opposite, as substitution rules are stricter, but teams only play one game per day).
In the unregulated basketball world, players play on multiple teams because there is no true pass card system that registers a player to a specific team, and teams play tournaments every weekend rather than one game per week.
The basketball model’s negative are in terms of training and development: Too many games, players moving from team to team, too many games per day, and more. The soccer model, however, certainly has problems because of the early identification and differentiation of talent. Would it be fair if a city of 1 million people had roughly 8-10 competitive clubs (50 games per year, 3 practices per week, 10 month season), and everyone else played recreational basketball (10 games per year, 2 practices per week, 3 month season)?
Who should determine who gets these opportunities? One coach? In a time when we were are pleading with children to exercise more, is limiting opportunities to create and join teams a positive outcome? Should we make these choices about talent at 8 or 9 years old? Should we force children to commit their childhoods to these clubs/teams?
I don’t believe that there is a perfect model. To me, the ideal would be some combination of what occurs in basketball and soccer. I’d like to see more competitive games, maybe based on a ranking system where teams played opponents of a similar rank, within a certain number of points. I’d like to see leagues rather than tournaments in urban areas especially (obviously more difficult for teams in smaller towns; when I ran a league, I accommodated the teams that drove a good distance, and they played every other week and played 2 games per day to reduce the strain of travel). I’d like to see some form of player registration system where players are locked into a team for a season, and if they want to change teams, they have to get their current team to sign off on the change. However, I’d also like to see as many players as possible remaining in the same competitive stream. Not every team would play each other, but teams would play similarly talented teams that created more competitive games and less of a stratification between the selected and non-selected. The more that a team won, the better competition they would face.
I don’t believe that we should decide who is talented at 9 years old, and I don’t believe that children should play tournaments with 3-4 games every weekend. I think there just needs to be some common sense used in designing the youth sports system.